Sunday, April 3, 2011

Pragmatic Ethics Part 1

Like any epistemological theory, pragmatism has profound implications in the field of ethics. Pragmatism, in a sense, is an ethical epistemological theory; it regards facts as a type of value, and begins with values rather than facts when explaining why we believe what we believe.

Because of this, I feel compelled to revise the ethical theory that I put forward a few years ago. While I think the basic thrust of the theory is the same, many of the arguments no longer apply or need to be reconstructed to better reflect my current view on the subject.

(1) The Is-Ought Problem

First explicitly formulated by David Hume, the is-ought problem has been a thorn in the side of ethicists ever since. The argument essentially is as follows:

  1. We can observe the world and know facts about it. We can know, for example, that the sky is blue, that rocks are hard, that we have arms, etc.
  2. Statements about facts and values are fundamentally different. The statement “The sky is blue,” can be verified empirically, but the statement “It is good that the sky is blue,” cannot.
  3. There is no logical method for deriving a value statement from a fact statement. I cannot infer from the fact that the sky is blue that it is good or bad in any objective sense.

Basically, Hume argued that there is no way to logically derive how things ought to be from the way things are. Value claims and ethical claims (claims about what ought to be) cannot be grounded in facts.

Many philosophers infer from Hume's argument that ethical claims are irrational or nonsense that don't refer to anything in reality. Others (Hume included) argue that ethics and values are fundamentally emotional and therefore have usefulness, but can't be defended in any logical or rational way.

Note that the whole argument rests on a specific epistemological foundation; the correspondence theory of truth. The assumption is that, before values enter the picture, we obtain facts about the world which are pure and untainted by values. It is only after we have facts that we interpret them in specific ways to produce values.

What happens when we swap out the correspondence theory of truth for a pragmatic theory? Essentially, the argument falls apart. A fact is information that we use to interact with our experience. Intrinsic to calling something a fact is belief in it. Intrinsic to belief is a pragmatic motivation; I believe it because it serves me in some way.

In terms of our experience, values precede facts. Even a newborn feels compelled to observe some things more than other things because of beliefs about what will and won't satisfy him, even if he is not capable of verbally expressing this fact.

There is no is-ought problem. If anything, there is an ought-is problem, but I think the pragmatic theory of truth (discussed in my other posts) addresses that well enough.

(2) Human Will and Compatibilism

Since human decision making is, essentially, what ethics is all about, it is important that we establish a basic foundation for human decision making. Do we have free will, or are we the unwitting puppets of forces beyond our control? Is this even a valid distinction?

The basic premise of determinism is that everything that occurs is caused by something else. If a tree falls down, it is the result of something causing the tree to fall down. In a deterministic universe, there is no such thing as an uncaused action.

To be even more clear, it is the nature of the entities that determines exactly how something behaves. For example, lets say I run into a tree with a truck and knock it down. The tree fell down because of the nature of the truck, the nature of the tree, and the nature of their interaction (high speed impact).

I agree with all of the above pragmatically. While causality itself cannot be observed, it is a useful theory for predicting future events. Determinism seems to be the most useful theory for explaining why future events seem connected to past events.

Many determinists, however, make a subtle leap from the belief that all action is causal to the belief that human decision making is moot. The assertion is that, since all human decisions must be caused by something else and that it is the nature of that "something else" that determines what human decisions will be, human decisions are simply illusory.

This is, to be blunt, a non-sequitur. It does not follow from the premise "human decisions are caused by something," that "human decisions are illusory/unimportant." There is a whole realm of causal interaction that occurs within one's own mind that links the outside world to the decisions you make, and none of it is an illusion by nature.

Today I will walk to work. The fact that a variety of previous causal interactions (many inside my own head) determined that I will make this decision does not invalidate the fact that I made a decision. I can't stress this point enough, and it is the fundamental reason I identify primarily as a compatibilist rather than a determinist.

No comments: